I spent a while in school. Well, it wasn’t all in school, there was a slight detour into vagabonding, a handful of hair-brained startups, and some time spent living out of a truck in the jungle. But the thirty-thousand foot view of my life shows a whopping six years spent in pursuit of an undergrad degree. In fact, if things had shaken out a bit differently, I might still be in school today. But sometime during the summer of 2013, with about half of a BA under my belt and about a dozen classes to go, I knew I had to end it.
During the four months that followed I read reams worth of course material, completed more than a hundred quizzes and tests, wrote over 230 pages of papers and presentations, and sat for more than a dozen final exams across a slew of subjects. When it was all over and done with I had a degree, and something else that was far more valuable.
This article explores how I did it, detailing the most important concepts I used to stay on track without losing my sanity. If you’re a student looking to get an edge in your work, there may be something here for you. If you’re a teacher or are otherwise invested in education, and are wondering what value I could possibly have gotten from going through so much information so quickly, we’ll talk a bit about that too.
But First A Word On Credentials
What I’m suggesting here – that nearly two years worth of schooling can be buttoned up in just a few weeks – flies in the face of a lot of popular perceptions. So I want to start by setting the stage, and introducing a few key ideas…
First, it’s important to recognize that the typical four-year degree is designed so that just about anyone can complete it in four years. As Derek Sivers has said, if you’re even a little bit more driven than the average person, you can do it faster (he finished Berkley in under 3 years).
If you’re reading this, you probably fall into the “more driven” category, and are perfectly capable of doing this. What’s more, it’s possible to do this without working twenty hours a day, or completely burning out.
Contrary to what you may think, during this period school did not dominate my life.
I’d like to say that was because I was some sort of productivity guru, and that after finishing my work each day I spent time relaxing on a beach somewhere. But the reality is that school didn’t take center stage because I couldn’t afford for it to take up all my time.
I was living on an air mattress in the attic bedroom of a house heated by a wood-burning stove, struggling to build a web development business and painting houses to make ends meet. It seems crazy now, but before I learned how to raise my freelance rates successfully, I used to charge just $10-20 per hour to work on websites, so much of my day was dominated by low-paying, labor-intensive work. School needed to be as brief as possible.
I’ll talk at length about how I pulled that off. But first, I want to outline a few other key concepts which helped to shape the course of this experiment:
- The Goal is to Pass, Not Excell – By this point in my career, I was tired of school and just wanted the diploma. Therefor, my goal was to pass the classes and get my paper, nothing more. Even a D was considered a win if it got me closer to graduation.
- School was Online – While I spent time at several colleges, the school I graduated from was an online university, and (as far as I could personally verify) offered fully accredited undergrad classes. The online nature meant that the work was slightly different (see below) but the concepts here can be applied to learning of all sorts.
- One Class at a Time – I was limited to taking one class at a time, but could begin the next one roughly 24 hours after I had certifiably passed my final exam and project.
- One Paper, One Exam – Each class could be taken on a challenge-basis, meaning there was no time requirement for passing. I simply needed to pass the final exam, and project. Each project was generally term-paper length (10-30 pages), and I needed to pass eight quizzes in order to unlock the final exam. The final had to be scheduled at least a day in advance and was supervised by a remote proctor. Papers usually took anywhere from a few hours to a day to be graded and approved. All this meant that if you were disciplined, it was possible to pass a course in a week and start the next one on the following Monday.
- Online Materials – I did not have to order or wait for textbooks. All the materials were online.
- Financial – I paid per semester, not per class, which meant that I was incentivized to fit as many classes into a semester as possible. This was an opportunity, but also a motivator (similar to the Negative Consequences for failing discussed in the D.A.M.N. Goal Framework) because even if I had just one class remaining at the end of the semester, I would have to pay for another whole semester in order to finish it. Failing, even by a single day would double the cost of my efforts, so it pushed me to progress.
Not in a program like this? Don’t worry about it. The principles here can be applied to traditional schooling as well, and the ideas here have had far-reaching implications for me well beyond school.
Lastly, a quick word on my brain — it’s nothing special. I’m not a genius, a speed-learner, or even a particularly gifted student (see the grade chart below). I’m not even sure if lastly is a real word. If I’m good at anything it’s being willing to give a crazy idea a try, and that is a learned skill, believe me.
Anyone can do this so long as they are willing to think a little outside the box, and experiment.
How to Pass a College Course a Week: Enter Professor Parkinson
One day I may write at length about just how helpful Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Workweek has been for me, but suffice it to say that I highly recommend it for anyone.
Chock-full of bold ideas and mind-bending case-studies that challenge your assumptions about what’s possible, just about everyone is likely to find something useful between its covers. One concept in particular was extremely helpful during this semester: Parkinson’s Law.
A mainstay of management theory today, Parkinson’s Law was originally handed down to us as a joke. The exquisitely named Cyril Northcote Parkinson was writing a humorous piece based on his experience in government work when he said that in general “work expands to fill the time allotted for it.” Ferriss puts it better in his book when he says that
“Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in [perceived] importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion”
-Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek
So, what does this mean? It means that the more time we have to do something, the more important and more complex it seems to be in our minds. This often results in overwhelm which leads to procrastination so the task isn’t started until the last-minute, and is generally finished just on time or late. Thus, projects appear to take a large amount of time because there is so much time given for their completion, but in reality can be finished rather quickly.
This is the most important implication of Parkinson’s Law — that our minds can trick us into thinking something is bigger and more complex than it really is, merely because we have more time to do it. Therefor, the key to tackling large projects in a short amount of time is mostly a matter of avoiding the temptation to believe that they should take a long time.
The best example is the age-old term paper. Generally assigned at the beginning of a semester, and given three to four months for completion, just about every student on Earth has experienced the caffein-fueled bender that is researching, drafting, and revising such a paper the night before it’s due. This is Parkinson’s Law in action. In reality, the paper only takes a few dedicated hours to complete. However, because several months are available for its completion, the perception is that it’s really quite a complex undertaking.
It may seem simple, but Parkinson’s Law was the principle I exploited most in that final semester. I set crazy-short deadlines on every single assignment and forced myself to believe they were possible to meet. Merely being aware of Parkinson’s Law makes it easier to get more done in less time.
Most days, I devoted just two hours in the morning to course work, and I reserved one full day per week for work on a course project. The schedule looked like this:
Mon: 2 Hrs Quizzes – Identify Knowledge Gaps & Schedule Exam
Tues: 2 Hrs Study Crucial Knowledge Gaps
Wed: 2 Hrs Study Crucial Knowledge Gaps
Thurs: Final Exam
Fri: All Day – Research, Write, and Submit Project or Paper
Sat: Apply for next course
I was able to keep this rhythm for almost all the courses I took that semester. The trick, as I’ve mentioned, was to avoid believing that the work required more time. No matter what you’re working on, there is always a way to get it done faster.
When I found myself thinking that something was really a big task and required more time, I’d remember Parkinson’s Law, and ask myself how I could get it done in half the time if my life depended on it. The answer was almost always “Stop thinking about it, sit down, and do the work.”
But even if you can trick yourself into driving focused action through something as simple as a deadline, you still need to be strategic about which action you take. And that is where the second principle comes into play…
Pareto at School
The Pareto Principle, or The Law of 80/20 as it is sometimes known, is simple — in any system, the vast majority (say, 80% or more) of outcomes are driven by a small minority (20% or less) of inputs.
In economics, a few people have most of the wealth and property. In business, a few products or key clients account for the bulk of annual profits. And in music, a tiny fraction of artists are responsible for just about all of the records sold each year.
When it comes to education, there are two primary implications of Pareto’s Principle.
First, in the strictly academic sense, it means that only a small percentage of the course material will actually be important when it comes to the test. And second, for practitioners, only a few key concepts from any given course will actually be used in the every-day work of the real world.
I used both of these concepts to my advantage in school.
First, let’s look at the material dispersion. The traditional mindset behind studying a subject is that there is a textbook and each page of the textbook is equally important. Students go through the book paying attention to all of the information, hoping they are able to absorb it all.
That’s admirable if you’re studying for deep competence. But recall that my primary goal was to pass classes and get a diploma, nothing more.
Pareto’s Law means that most exams do not test material equally. Instead, they focus on certain parts of the subject which are deemed to be most important. If you can suss out these key subjects up front, identifying which you most need to study, you can make your study time dramatically more effective.
Recall too that in order to unlock the final exam I first had to pass eight chapter quizzes. I would begin each week by hacking my way through each of the quizzes, with a goal of unlocking the final exam on day one.
Most of us are not completely ignorant to any topic, and I found that I was often able to get a few questions on each quiz right. I would make notes of questions I consistently got wrong or terms which were totally foreign to me, and those were the things I specifically studied.
Even if you’re in a class that does not offer access to quizzes up front, you can mimic a version of this by looking for review questions at the end of each chapter in your textbook.
The goal is not to score perfect on the final exam, but to have a firm grasp on the 20% of material which will allow you to easily pass 70-80% of the exam.
By starting with the quizzes, I was quickly able to identify the few critical areas of a subject I needed to spend time focusing on, which increased the value of my limited study time. I called these subjects my “knowledge gaps”, or the things I needed to absorb in order to likely do a good job passing the test and project.
But that’s not learning! I hear you say.
In some ways, you’re right. This level of competence is not sufficient for everyone, and I would say the depth of knowledge you have on any topic should vary depending on what you do for work.
But even those studying to be practitioners of a specific topic can benefit from Pareto’s insights.
While you may require a deeper level of knowledge than someone who is just trying to test through, if you’re able to identify the key skills that form the foundation of your practice, you can devote more of your focused time to mastering those, quickly progressing beyond your peers.
In his book, The 4-Hour Chef, Tim Ferriss expands further on this idea saying:
It is possible to become world-class, enter the top 5 percent of performers in the world, in almost any subject within 6-12 months, or even 6-12 weeks. There is a recipe… and that is DiSSS… The recipe for learning any skill is encapsulated in this acronym.
-Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Chef
One of the primary concepts in Ferriss’ DiSSS framework is Selection, or the ability to identify the key concepts behind any skill. “Which 20 percent of the blocks should I focus on for 80 percent or more of the outcomes I want?”
Focus on what’s most important, and have the strength to let go of the rest, knowing that you often can look it up if it ever becomes needed.
But What About Quality?
Now, you might think that by limiting the amount of time you give yourself to complete a task, you’re asking for a crummy end-product. Quality work takes time after all, right?
In fact, no. Quality work takes quality work, and on average people work better when the deadline is imminent. Ferriss puts it this way:
“The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus.”
-Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek
So, What Happened?
Below is an overview of my grades for each of the courses I took. Each point on the line is a class, and they are charted in order from first to last for all of the classes I kept data on during the experiment (the final thirteen). There are thirteen because I actually started this one-week-per-class schedule during the final week of the previous semester to see if it was possible.
Now the first and most obvious finding is that there is was generally a huge, huge difference between my exams and my papers. Interesting by itself, but the real question is, which is more valuable in determining overall education?
Some will say that exams are the true test of knowledge. Your ability to answer questions without resorting to sources or fact-checking is the ultimate measure of what’s in your head. This has been the way of education for quite some time.
However, others will say that the world is changing. 24/7 access to massive amounts of information in the palm of our hands has tipped the scales. Now, it’s not so important to remember facts – the world changes too fast to make rote memorization useful. Instead they say it’s far more useful today to be able to find the answer to a problem. Research, distillation, and ultimately the ability to drive real results – these are the keys to success in todays world.
I lean towards the latter school of thought in work, and elsewhere. By day I’m a freelance front-end web developer. Working with code is interesting because no matter what you want to do, there are multiple correct ways to do it. What’s more, each project is unique and often requires a unique take on something you may have already done in the past. On top of all that, with the web expanding the way it is — to phones and tablets, TVs and even household appliances — you could never in your entire life memorize every facet of code necessary for building a good looking website that works on all devices. It’s just not practical, and practicality pays the bills.
Interestingly enough, there’s an example of this visible within the data as well. About mid-way through the chart there’s a point with the widest distribution between project grade and final exam grade. That course was Managerial Accounting in which I wrote a 16 page paper (scored a 98%) and received a 60% on the final exam. The project was a full workup of a mock-company’s accounting information including a Variable Costing Income Statement, Flexible Budgets, Labor and Material Variances, Analysis of Net Present Value of Capital Investments, and a bunch of other very jargony sounding things.
The point is, I bombed the exam because I couldn’t correctly answer multiple choice questions about accounting. But actual accounting doesn’t involve multiple choice questions, it involves opening up a spreadsheet and bangin’ out some Variable Costing Income Statements, Flexible Budgets, and the rest.
The same goes for the next course, Managerial Finance, where I landed a 66% on the final exam, but garnered a 94% on the 37 page financial analysis I handed in.
Ultimately, it was a hell of a semester, but I was able to finish all of my remaining courses in time for the end of the semester (transcript here) and graduate, coming away with my diploma, and a valuable lesson in doing what at first seems impossible.
To recap, the primary principles used to pull this off were:
- Set a Deadline – Use Parkinson’s Law to prompt focused action, and avoid tricking yourself into thinking something is more complicated than it really is.
- Identify Key Knowledge Gaps – All knowledge is not equally useful. Use Pareto’s Principle to identify the topics you most need to study, and focus your time on subjects that will be most useful for your goal.
- Keep the Goal In Mind – Are you studying to become a practitioner? Or simply studying to pass? There’s a difference. Don’t fool yourself into thinking deep knowledge is important if it’s not, and vice versa.
- Work Smart and Hard – The right concepts will take you a long way, but ultimately it comes down to work. Be smart about your approach, but don’t be afraid to put the time in when it’s necessary.